Secularism is an alien concept at the operational level in much of India. What people understand is the notion of tolerance
In the past four days, Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh has witnessed an orgy of communal violence. Thirty-two people have been killed and many more injured in the district.
At one level, the district administration was caught napping. Local officials did not heed the signals properly. An incident on 27 August, in which three people—one Muslim and two Hindus from the jat community—were killed should have alerted authorities at the sub-divisional level at least. This may sound unfair: after all that could very well have been a random event, a petty dispute of the kind seen across the country almost on a daily basis. But fast-forward 11 or 12 days ahead to the last weekend. The jat community held a so-called mahapanchayat on Saturday and large-scale violence in the district began on Sunday morning. By the afternoon, such was its extent and fury that even the army had a hard time quelling it. The failure of the administration lay in not anticipating the groundswell of unrest. Any effective district magistrate, who has the pulse of his district, cannot miss these signs.
But are matters in Uttar Pradesh that simple?
The usual practice for administrators to keep an eye on the districts is to remain constantly in touch with all manner of persons—from the village level right up to district headquarters. The district police has its own set of informers, who regularly alert them about trouble and unrest. In Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in the more politicized states of India—Bihar is another example—this link has been broken. In administrative terms, Uttar Pradesh was never an easy state to govern even during British times. But since the Mandal revolution, this link has been sundered completely. If any local notable has direct access to an entire spectrum of political leaders—from the local legislator all the way to cabinet ministers—why should they even bother about local administrators? (For Muzaffarnagar, Azam Khan, the state’s parliamentary affairs minister, is the minister in-charge of the district). In effect, the local administration ends up being remote from the very people it is supposed to govern. What else can explain the magistrates and policemen not knowing the scale of the fury that gripped the district?
The obverse of this sort of politicization of local affairs is that everything gets centralized. District officers lose initiative and wait for instructions before taking even the simplest of measures. For example, how is it possible that even after imposition of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the code of criminal procedure (banning an unlawful assembly of people) and a curfew, local officers were unable to apprehend politicians’ instigating violence. In fact, two days elapsed between the taking of such steps and the registration of first cases. So when chief minister Akhilesh Yadav spoke of district officers being empowered to take the right steps, he was not lying but he was also not stating the conditions under which such officers work.
Then, consider the next level of failure: the state government itself. The council of ministers in the state has 10 Muslim ministers. Of these, Azam Khan is perhaps the most outspoken and is certainly a power to be reckoned with. As argued above, because of the politicization of even routine life in Uttar Pradesh, it is simply not believable that these 10 worthies were not aware of the signals emanating from western parts of the state. Either these ministers did not care or they do not have a voice in the council of minister, being mere “show boys". Both ways, this is damming for the Akhilesh Yadav government.
This last point connects to an ideological failure as well. Rural India is often held as an example of life that is removed from the communalization that has infected urban, middle class, upper caste, life. There was no sign of this secular idyll in Muzaffarnagar. Ever since the Akhilesh Yadav government assumed control in March last year, more than 50 incidents of communal violence have been reported from UP. How is it that an avowedly secular government, one that routinely mouths slogans against “communal forces" from any and every available forum, mismanaged things in its backyard so spectacularly?
Here, the story gets a bit complicated. In the first instance, secularism is an alien concept at the operational level in much of India. In practical terms, what people understand is the notion of tolerance. This is simple: there are persons of other religious persuasion apart from one’s own and that they, too, have an equal right to their way of life and religious ideas. Equidistance of the state from all religions—the sarkari version of secularism—is probably too abstract an idea in the badlands of western UP. But our leaders and our intellectuals do not want to hear that bad word tolerance for it smacks of an apology dished out by the proponents of Hindutva. In UP, this has had led to poor political outcomes. Time and again, it has voted into power governments that are too dependent on the idea of secularism and the protection of Muslims. This is a double-edged sword: any riot serves as an opportunity to remind citizens that without such a government, “communal forces" will unleash a dance of destruction. It leaves precious little space for positive politics, for example of the kind based on seeking electability on the grounds of governance or economic performance. If in the bargain, this ensures better electoral prospects, then why not permit a useful riot or two? It is all a matter of political incentives. India deserves better politics.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.